Council deal will put rail to vote next fall |

Council deal will put rail to vote next fall

Aspen City Councilmen Tony Hershey and Tom McCabe said yesterday they would withdraw support for a funding question about rail on this fall’s ballot if a compromise reached with their fellow council members results in a firm commitment to put the issue before voters next fall.

The surprise agreement came after a rancorous three-hour debate on rail, buses, highways and the upcoming election. For it to hold, Hershey and McCabe must agree to a ballot question currently being crafted by the city attorney that seeks approval for dedicated bus lanes across the Marolt Open Space. Then they will step down from the citizens committee that is leading the drive to place an initiative about rail funding before the voters this fall.

Concessions were made on both sides of the rail debate to reach the compromise. Hershey and McCabe agreed to postpone for one year their campaign promise to put the question of rail funding before voters this fall. Mayor Rachel Richards and Councilmen Terry Paulson and Jim Markalunas agreed to push this fall for voter approval of bus lanes through the Marolt Open Space, and put the question of funding on the ballot in November 2000.

If the compromise holds, it may also placate downvalley communities that are worried about being left out of the transit debate just as it is reaching its climax.

Yesterday’s developments began shortly after noon, when Richards, Paulson and Markalunas called a press conference at the busiest corner in downtown Aspen to announce that they planned to put their own transportation question on the fall ballot.

The three senior members of the council made it clear that their referendum asking voters to approve funding for a dedicated busway between the airport and downtown Aspen was a result of the petition drive initiated last Tuesday by McCabe and Hershey. If initiative supporters gather enough signatures to put their question on the ballot, voters will be asked to decide whether to authorize the city to borrow up to $20 million for a light-rail system. If they vote no, the initiative directs the city to develop bus lanes instead of rail.

“Their initiative is written to fail – it’s close to unreadable and is unreasonably long,” Richards said over the din of noontime traffic at Mill and Main streets.

The pro-rail trio was especially critical of Hershey and McCabe for putting the question to voters so soon after completion of the Corridor Investment Study of the costs and benefits of transportation options – rail or expanded bus service – between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. Information from the corridor study has been trickling out for several weeks now, but the most important cost figures are not due to be released until next week.

With a question on busway funding that does not preclude future construction of light rail into Aspen, Richards, Markalunas and Paulson were hoping to provide voters with an alternative to the Hershey-McCabe initiative and put off the final decision on rail funding.

The state constitution allows questions to be placed on a ballot either by a majority vote of the local legislative body, such as a City Council, or through a citizens initiative that qualifies by gathering petition signatures from registered voters.

Shortly after the hourlong press conference ended, the posturing moved inside City Hall, where the two sides, armed with their respective initiatives, debated the issue for three hours. The tone of the discussion – that too much is being asked of voters too soon – was set early on by Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens, who warned that a decision without input from downvalley voters could have unexpected consequences.

“It looks like business as usual – the upper valley is going to decide what kind of transportation system is best for the rest of us,” Stevens said. “If support for this thing goes down the tubes, you’d better be ready to build parking facilities and get traffic into town, or you’re not going to have any workers.”

Steven’s warning seemed to have little impact early on in the discussion. “Whether we turn down rail funding this year or turn it down next year, the other communities in the valley are still going to be tied to whatever Aspen decides,” McCabe said.

But as the afternoon wore on, the two sides moved together, especially as the pleas for compromise came from all sides. “I would plead with both Tony and Tom to reconsider their petition and keep the welfare of the community in mind,” Markalunas said.

“If I have to vote on this in November, I will not be voting for what’s best for our community. I’ll be voting for whatever ensures a four-lane highway can never be built into Aspen,” said audience member Jim Curtis.

As the meeting drew to an end – seemingly without compromise – Hershey and McCabe softened their stance. After City Manager Amy Margerum proposed the Marolt Open Space question this fall and the funding question next fall, Hershey said, “I can agree to the Marolt Open Space question in November 1999 if we’re assured of a bonding vote for rail or bus in November 2000.”

But even if the council’s two newest members pull back their support for the citizens initiative, they may not be able to keep it off the ballot. City Attorney John Worcester said voters may still see a funding question, because Hershey and McCabe can be replaced on the organizing committee.

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